SHARE: “Are You an Intellectual?”

From the University of Florida press briefing: “Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American History, with a particular emphasis on racist and antiracist ideas and movements. In November, Kendi won the National Book Award for his second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which has been praised nationwide for turning our ideas about racism upside-down.” A full transcript of the speech is available in the above link.

In his commencement speech, Ibram X. Kendi asks a simple question to a congregation of freshly-minted PhDs: “Are you an intellectual?” For Kendi, having a degree is not tantamount to being an intellectual.

“I define,” Kendi says, “an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique.  Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.”

To this group belongs academics, sure, but also those who never studied in higher education, those who are incarcerated, the homeless, and so many others. In short, it’s simply not about how much you’ve been taught. Rather, it is principally the drive and desire to seek truth–both within ourselves and in the world around us. To be an intellectual is to be a witness to oneself, willing to reflect and reshape what we feel and know in the face of new information. This is not always comfortable, and Kendi reminds us that it is precisely in this discomfort that intellectuals are so important. “The task of intellectuals,” he says, “is to fashion a clear and unadulterated mirror of humanity, so we can see ourselves for what we really are.  The task of intellectuals is to investigate the problems of our world. The task of intellectuals is to solve the problems of our world.”

In a fiercely anti-intellectual climate, it is increasingly necessary to ask ourselves what Kendi asks of us: are we intellectuals?

I hope so.


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